If you have an aging loved one, you may be concerned about his physical and mental health. You want to make sure that he gets treatment for any medical condition he has, and you are on guard for any signs of Alzheimer’s or other dementia. These are noble goals, yet they can unintentionally result in the over-medication of the elderly.
The Polypharmacy Epidemic of America’s Seniors
According to an NBC News report, about 20% of Americans over the age of 65 take at least ten medications every week. Over 80% of people with significant health issues see two or more doctors. Most have three or more doctors, and many have four or more physicians. These doctors do not always know what the others are prescribing for the patient.
The author of the NBC report cited her mother as an example. Her mom took 32 medications at five times every day. Nearly every medication had its own dosage schedule, once, twice or three times a day, or as needed. At age 61, her mother was suffering memory loss and cognitive issues that made her family worried about early onset dementia. They discovered that many medications could be reduced or eliminated. When they did so, the side effects went away, and her mental clarity returned.
The Dangers of Over-Medicating the Elderly
An aging body cannot metabolize a drug , so toxicity can cause an older patient from a dose that might be correct for a younger person. There are 1.5 million adverse drug events every year in the U.S., many of which are fatal. At least 400,000 incidents are preventable. Adverse drug events create about $3.5 billion a year in health care costs.
Some medications will cause other drugs to be ineffective or may be dangerous when taken with other medications. If your health care professionals do not work together to craft a unified medication plan for you, the results could be lethal.
The more medications you are taking, the greater the likelihood of medication errors. It is easy to take the wrong dose at the wrong time, when you have a complicated medication schedule.
Another danger of over-medication is the potential for a false diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or other dementia, due to the “chemical fog” from multiple medications. The side effects from over-medication can also result in the incorrect diagnosis of a worsening medical condition, which can lead to the doctors increasing the medications. The situation spirals out of control, as the increased medications make the condition even worse.
Addiction to prescription drugs, especially opioids and other painkillers, is a real problem today. Some might dismiss addiction as an issue for seniors under the justification they do not have as long to live, but this attitude is callous and heartless. No one wants to become an addict.
Reasons for the Increased Use of Medications
Since many seniors see multiple doctors to treat various medical conditions, the doctors may not always know what other medications the senior is taking. Just as they would not want to be second-guessed by someone, physicians are reluctant to question a medication prescribed by another doctor.
Avoiding liability claims is another reason doctors are likely to prescribe medications. A doctor can be sued for malpractice, if she does not treat a known condition. The safe bet is to order medication.
Americans have become pill-poppers. We have a pill for every possible complaint. Patients and their families may demand that the doctor “do something” when the loved one is unwell, and taking action often involves writing a prescription.
Talk with an elder law attorney in your area for advice on how to protect your aging loved ones.
NPR. “Old and Overmedicated: The Real Drug Problem in Nursing Homes.” http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/12/08/368524824/old-and-overmedicated-the-real-drug-problem-in-nursing-homes
PBS. “Has overmedicating seniors become ‘America’s other drug problem’?” (accessed September 20, 2017) http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/polypharmacy-americas-drug-problem/
NBC News. “The epidemic of overmedication.” (accessed September 20, 2017) http://www.nbcnews.com/id/27645077/ns/health-health_care/t/epidemic-overmedication/#.WcM030pSx-U